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ELECTORAL COUPS: A rough guide to winning elections in Kenya

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The Supreme Court’s courageous act of annulling Kenya’s August 8, 2017 presidential election seems to have plunged Kenya into a deep political crisis, especially after the withdrawal of Raila Odinga and Kalonzo Musyoka from the October 26 re-run. However, if the court’s decision compounded Kenya’s political crisis, it was not so much because it radically departed from Africa’s well-thumped jurisprudence on presidential election disputes. Rather, it was because the court inadvertently saddled Kenyans with an electoral coup — something that neither a resolute and courageous court nor a beleaguered and isolated opposition could contain, singly or jointly.

The Supreme Court judges and a renegade commissioner blew the cover off the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC). The strategically located co-conspirators within the IEBC were identified and named, but unashamedly stayed put. The IEBC threatened to revert to its factory settings.

Ominous indicators

The Supreme Court expected nothing but a fresh election held in strict accordance with the constitution and the law. However, barring a last-minute court intervention out of the many cases now before the judges of High Court and the Supreme Court, Kenya looked set for a coup.

Several ominous indicators pointed to the possibility of a coup: Externally, the contested presidential election re-run on 26 October was notably and explicitly endorsed by the United Nations, the African Election Observer Group, and the US-led “international community”, which downplayed fears expressed by the IEBC’s commissioner Roselyne Akombe and its chairman Wafula Chebukati that the IEBC, as currently constituted, could not hold a credible election. These officials told the world that the IEBC was compromised and was held captive by four commissioners, some members of staff and the Chief Executive Officer, who opposed the chairman’s proposed reforms.

Internally, signs that a coup was in the offing included the military-like poses of the Jubilee party’s leaders, who were seen wearing red berets and military fatigues (contrary to the law) in readiness to salute any order given by their commander. The subliminal message of this militant posturing was not lost on the Kenyan public.

In a show of military might, the government sent the paramilitary and police mostly to opposition strongholds of Western Kenya, Coast, Nairobi and parts of the Rift Valley. There were also reports of militia groups allied to the Jubilee party taking a new form of Nthenge oaths in Nairobi’s Lucky Summer estate to the chants of “thaiya thai thai”.

Internally, signs that a coup was in the offing included the military-like poses of the Jubilee party’s leaders, who were seen wearing red berets and military fatigues (contrary to the law) in readiness to salute any order given by their commander.

On its part, the opposition withdrew from the presidential election and vowed that there would be no election on 26 October. It violently disrupted IEBC preparations for the new election in the counties of Siaya, Homa Bay, Migori and Kisumu. It remained intransigent, bloodied but unbowed, mobilised and charged, but isolated internationally.

The counter-coup

The C-word (coup) has been used by some Kenyans to define the significance of the 1 September 2017 Supreme Court verdict nullifying the 8 August election. None other than Uhuru Kenyatta, the would-be principal beneficiary of the IEBC’s “illegalities and irregularities”, rattled and rankled by the court’s decision, called the court’s verdict a judicial coup. He was echoing the dissenting Supreme Court judge Njoki Ndungu’s verdict in which she cast aspersions on the integrity of the majority of her fellow Supreme Court judges and of the judicial process that led to the nullification of the election.

However, Uhuru’s charge of a judicial coup is a non-starter. It lacks the watermarks of one. There is no credible evidence that by annulling the presidential results the majority in the Supreme Court bench acted in haste, exercised their powers in an extra-constitutional or illegal manner, or declared an underserving candidate the winner of the 2017 presidential election – all backed by the threat or use of violence, against anyone and everyone resisting such a plot.

Uhuru’s charge of a judicial coup, therefore, served to divert attention from what truly imperils Kenya’s democracy: electoral coups.

An electoral coup is a fairly recent phenomenon but has striking similarities to a military coup d’état. In both electoral and military coups, the conspirators identify the strategic locus or loci of state power, which they attempt to infiltrate and control. They then use these centres of power to acquire the remaining levers of state machinery, and eventually the state.

But before we get to that point, we must ask whether the concept of a coup hold the key to understanding the complexity of Kenya’s electoral politics at this juncture? Technically no, because in a classic coup d’état, the state is overthrown (usually through the use of violence) by a rebel or military group. In this case, it was the state that engineered a coup to subvert or overthrow state institutions, particularly the electoral commission. So if the Supreme Court ruling was a judicial coup, then the 26 October election could be described as an electoral coup, or a counter-coup that sought to defy or invalidate the Supreme Court decision.

An electoral coup is a fairly recent phenomenon but has striking similarities to a military coup d’état. In both electoral and military coups, the conspirators identify the strategic locus or loci of state power, which they attempt to infiltrate and control. They then use these centres of power to acquire the remaining levers of state machinery, and eventually the state. All coups succeed or fail to the extent that they are able to create and sustain a perception of victory once they have seized a strategic locus of state power.

The coup plotters deploy threat or use of violence against those who may resist them, and carefully identify their friends as well as their enemies and opponents whose capacity for resistance must be sabotaged or neutered sequentially or simultaneously. Some of these enemies must be targeted through a long-term process, but others must be taken by surprise on the day of the coup.

Electoral coups also adopt military warfare techniques, such as the use of psychological operation tactics (pys-ops) and the use of civic spaces of democracy, such as Kenya’s oligopolistic “mainstream” media, PR agencies and social media. These tactics are used to create and sustain a perception of the incumbent’s inevitable victory or invincibility, to fan and exploit citizens’ fear of political violence, to intimidate the opposition, to sustain a façade of the independence of the electoral commission, and to dominate the framing of the political contest and narratives of victory and loss. Electoral coups can be bloody or bloodless.

Kenya’s experience in its last three elections suggests that electoral coups are made up of these elements and more. The preferred locus of execution of these coups has been the electoral management body, the Supreme Court, or both. It usually harangues the opposition to go to court, not for justice, but as means of obtaining judicial imprimatur for its politically cathartic and legitimating value.

Military coups

Pictures of army tanks rolling down the city’s main street, soldiers in military fatigues with belts of bullets strapped across their chests patrolling the streets or standing guard around iconic public buildings within a capital city, the seizure and control of the state-owned national radio and television station by these forces, the continuous broadcasting of political martial music and “revolutionary” messages by “a redemption council” or “a revolutionary council” – these images are usually associated with military coup d’états, which generally set an organised army unit or units against the rest of the armed forces and society, which they dominate both by the threat or use of force, superior organisational ability, weaponry and the capacity to outlast any resistance.

In a paper published by the Albert Einstein Institution, Gene Sharp and Bruce Jenkins define a coup as “a rapid seizure of physical and political control of the state apparatuses by illegal action of a conspiratorial group backed by the threat or use of violence.” This speaks to the surprise, speed, means and the immediate strategic targets of coup makers.

However, there is more to the making of military or other types of coups. A military coup d’état is typically the ultimate pitched battle, asymmetrical warfare between the coup plotters who command an army or units of armed formations, on the one hand, and the armed formations of the state that are not party to the plot, on the other. The state could or could not be aided in its resistance to this power grab by civic institutions and unarmed but organised political groups, as well as rag-tag militia.

Competitive authoritarian regimes are states whose politics is defined by an odd mix of nascent liberal democracy and authoritarian carry-overs from one-party rule. These regimes are torn between democracy (with its strong local support base) and declining international support of its yesteryear benefactors (the West) who are playing catch-up with the rising authoritarian pull of a Chinese debt-bondage driven by a multipolar global system.

Coups are executed with speed, but take a long time to plan. They involve the identification, infiltration and control of strategic loci of state power. Usually, coup makers recruit key persons in charge of critical functions at strategic loci of state power, people whose simultaneous or separate but sequential acts, under the instruction of the coup plotters, enable the coup makers to take control of a strategic centre of state power, and use that to take control of the rest of the state machinery and to impose their rule on a people.

Coups in competitive authoritarian regimes

Competitive authoritarian regimes are states whose politics is defined by an odd mix of nascent liberal democracy and authoritarian carry-overs from one-party rule. These regimes are torn between democracy (with its strong local support base) and declining international support of its yesteryear benefactors (the West) who are playing catch-up with the rising authoritarian pull of a Chinese debt-bondage driven by a multipolar global system. Their politics is asymmetrical warfare, neither wholly determined by brute force (by the state security apparatus, state-sanctioned militia or opposition sanctioned militia) nor by civic actions, but by a mix of both, especially during general elections. Courts play an important role in recalibrating the balance of forces in this warfare.

Although military tanks on the streets of a capital city represent the dominant image of a coup d’état, there can be many other types of coups, defined by the locus of their execution, as there are centrally located levers of state power in a competitive authoritarian regime. The conspirators can seize these strategically-placed levers of state power and use them to control the rest of the state machinery.

In a competitive authoritarian regime such as Kenya, it is these loci of power – defined by highly centralised bureaucratic structures and decision making in the hands of a few – that are the prized targets of coup makers. The IEBC’s national tallying centre and the Supreme Court of Kenya fall into this category.

Elections are a perilous moment for such regimes. They present the ruling party with a dilemma: how to stage electoral contests that do not threaten the status quo but lend the regime a veneer of democratic legitimacy. Such democratic charades have great purchasing power among the self-declared “international community” (Western powers), especially in a world where political stability, as opposed to democratic niceties, is gaining currency.

Elections are anxious moments because they are a time when state power rests and shifts from one temporary locus to the other – from the substantive holder of the office of the presidency to the electoral commission or the judiciary. The electoral commission or the judiciary act as temporary custodians of state power, with enormous fiduciary powers. As the interim custodians of both state power and the people’s will, the chairman of the electoral commission or Supreme Court judges, acting singly or jointly, can declare any presidential candidate a winner according or contrary to the democratic will of the voters, the constitution and electoral laws.

Several acts, sequentially executed, in the run-up to and after the last three general elections in Kenya, seem to suggest that electoral coups have become the preferred mode of grabbing state power under the guise of a competitive election.

What’s more, an electoral moment throws up multiple strategic vulnerabilities: the counting, tallying and declaration of election results and the resolution of any dispute arising from such an exercise. Any of these loci of state power can be seized and used to acquire the rest of the state machinery. Or a combination of all these points can be captured and used to acquire the rest.

Kenya’s electoral coups

Several acts, sequentially executed, in the run-up to and after the last three general elections in Kenya, seem to suggest that electoral coups have become the preferred mode of grabbing state power under the guise of a competitive election. These coups are executed through a process of infiltration, seizure and control of the electoral management body to produce preferred outcomes and through the use of a cross-section of state security to put down any resistance.

Since 2007, Kenya has experienced this form of power grab, partly made possible by the electoral management body’s acts of “human error, fatigue, and technological failure” – which always happen only in favour of the incumbent or the incumbent’s preferred candidates – and by the cynical invocation or use of the judicial system to legitimise such a power grab.

The 2007 Kibaki coup

Mwai Kibaki’s 2007 power grab surprised many, not least the Kriegler Commission, which noted the strange circumstances surrounding the final announcement of the results of the presidential election and the low-key swearing-in ceremony at State House on the evening of 30 December 2007, a day before the official expiry of Kibaki’s first term in office.

Protracted political stalemate at the Kenyatta International Conference Centre (KICC), the national tallying centre, could have spilled over into a crisis of legitimacy for the incumbent, denying Kibaki the strategic advantage of bargaining with his opponent from an advantaged position as the commander-in-chief of the all the armed forces who could exercise the full powers of the office of the president.

Kibaki’s 2007 “victory” out of a muddled electoral process was a coup; it relied on sequential or simultaneous acts of infiltration and control of a strategic locus of state power (the ECK) and used the threat of violence to neutralise resistance.

Many Kenyans were surprised by the sight of the “Ninja turtles” that descended on the KICC just before the results were announced. These police officers – dubbed “Ninja turtles” by Kenyans because of their striking resemblance to the fictional Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle cartoon characters – are mostly from the Rapid Deployment Unit of the Administration Police, the police unit that is under the command of the Minister of Internal Security and which had grown spectacularly in strength, capability and numbers during the Kibaki regime.

The political significance of the chaos at KICC – with the chairman of the electoral commission, Samuel Kivuitu, literally under siege – the hasty swearing-in of Kibaki at dusk and the growth in numbers and strength of a civilian-commanded police force under a regime that ostensibly upheld citizens’ right to protest and picket was not lost on the majority of Kenyans.

Similarly, the political significance of the lack of preparedness of all the armed forces, except the military, and the lack of co-ordination among security chiefs at various levels (district, provincial and national) was not lost on the Waki Commission that was set up to look into the violence that erupted after that disputed election.

These acts, coupled with the cordoning off of the KICC by the General Service Unit (GSU), the revelation that the Electoral Commission of Kenya (ECK) had been infiltrated by the National Intelligence Service and rogue returning officers, and the opaque system of counting and tallying results at the KICC, suggested a coup plot via the electoral locus.

Kibaki’s 2007 “victory” out of a muddled electoral process was a coup; it relied on sequential or simultaneous acts of infiltration and control of a strategic locus of state power (the ECK) and used the threat of violence to neutralise resistance. It deployed police around the main entrances and exits of urban slums, cordoned off public spaces, such as Uhuru Park, for months on end and restricted public broadcasts to weaken the opposition’s ability to organise or mobilise protests against the regime.

The successful execution of a coup requires the active participation of some armed formations that have the capability to repress any anticipated forms of armed or civilian resistance. It also requires “neutral” or “professional” police and military forces – an unprepared police force, security committees that didn’t meet, and a prepared but professional army, which maintains its neutrality while the coup plot unfolds. Such a coup can gain legitimacy through the tacit or explicit approval of the international community, particularly countries whose military bases are located in Kenya, the UN headquarters in Nairobi, and strategic countries that Kenya relies on for military support.

Simply put, a Kibaki-style coup plot succeeds when it faces no credible or active internal threat from any other armed formation, except the unarmed civilian mobs of protestors or gangs armed with bows and arrows, who can easily be contained by the police and the paramilitary under the guise of maintaining law and order.

Kenya’s first successful electoral coup in 2007 was bloody. But if the securocrats and the Kibaki-aligned political elite hewed Kenya’s body politic “like a carcass fit for the hounds,” in 2007, then in 2013 they “carved it as a dish fit for the gods” with peace campaigns and “accept and move on,” messages.

How the Kibaki coup was executed and the resistance against it has informed the subsequent attempts. Though successful, Kibaki’s 2007 seizure of state power was seen to have had several weaknesses, which cost him the complete control of state power (a “nusu mkate” coalition government) and endangered real or perceived Kibaki supporters in opposition strongholds, especially in the Rift Valley. The resistance against it, nationally and internationally, nearly consumed the regime’s success.

Importantly, Kibaki’s plot had failed to create a perception of victory. His Party of National Unity’s campaign was seen as lethargic and as lacking an effective communication strategy: it failed to manage public perception (opinion polls) and to trumpet Kibaki’s economic achievements. Even its successful attempts to rope in top editors who authored “Save Our Country’ headlines was seen as a little too late.

Kenya’s 2013 electoral experience was sublime. The electoral process was a well-designed psychological operation to create and sustain a perception of victory, coupled with mediated reportage and embedded intellectuals, as well as co-option of a cross-section of the civil society groups to preach peace.

Similarly, its diplomacy was wanting and no match for the diplomatic charm offensive of some of Kenya’s astute human rights and democracy activists who had contacts in high places in the West. It strengthened the opposition, the pro-democracy forces and the reform agenda against the regime. Importantly, it allowed too many concessions, especially the enactment of the 2010 Constitution of Kenya.

The 2013 digital coup

The evil genius of the Jubilee party’s 2013 electoral coup was to turn Kibaki’s coup on its head: rewrite the old military coup d’état manual and distill out of it evil lessons with which to subvert Kenya’s democratic processes and institutions.

Kenya’s 2013 electoral experience was sublime. The electoral process was a well-designed psychological operation to create and sustain a perception of victory, coupled with mediated reportage and embedded intellectuals, as well as co-option of a cross-section of the civil society groups to preach peace.

Critical media coverage was disarmed through peace journalism. Media coverage critical of the IEBC was equated with inciting political violence. Claims by the opposition, which deserved a critical look, were brushed aside as acts of incitement. Jubilee ran a glitzy and energetic campaign. Its victory was prophesised by the talk of a “tyranny of numbers” that assured a win for the UhuRuto alliance.

 In 2013, the locus of the electoral machinery was relocated to the Bomas of Kenya (a rondavel-like auditorium that was created to host cultural events), away from Nairobi central business district and an easy location to secure. The election was choreographed as a national cultural event or a public holiday that culminates in the appearance and address by the president. Choirs sang to soothe the anxieties of a nation still smarting from the trauma of the 2007 general election, anxiously awaiting the announcement of the winner, while the electoral body’s commissioners, like members of a cultural troupe, took turns to announce the results.

Yet something was amiss. The biometric voter identification and electronic transmission of results failed. The numbers being beamed on the screen were not adding up; they were not even divisible by a factor that Isaak Hassan, the then chairman of the commission, said was the multiplier. Rejected votes seemed to have been the unnamed candidate in the race. There was no way to verify that the numbers presented by the IEBC truly reflected the will of Kenyan voters.

The result was strategically announced in the middle of the night to give security forces ample time to plan for any form of resistance. As many as 150,000 officers from different armed formations (Kenya Police, GSU, Prisons, Kenya Wildlife) had been mobilised, trained and deployed to secure the 2013 election, though this was not made public.

The coup de grace was delivered through a pys-op that at once painted Raila Odinga as the personification of political violence and harangued him to accept the results of the presidential election, and if he was dissatisfied, to seek judicial redress.

Aggrieved by the results, the Raila-led opposition went to court. The newness of the Supreme Court, the refreshing leadership of Chief Justice Willy Mutunga, a well-known human rights defender, and the court’s new olive green and yellow striped robes and no-wigs-or-bibs attire inspired confidence. However, the judges unanimously disallowed the bulk of the evidence the opposition had hoped would prove its case, citing constitutional time constraints.

The IEBC numbers on the 2013 presidential election, like its voter register, kept changing, and took an extraordinarily long time to finally be posted for public scrutiny. Without a stable register of voters, the “tyranny of numbers” became a self-fulfilling prophecy that no one could test, but a valuable tool for creating and sustaining a perception of invincibility.

The Supreme Court’s own self-initiated process of examining the records of the IEBC failed the integrity test. The court let the IEBC off the hook.

Kenyans had to wait for the 2017 new-look Supreme Court bench to get a glimpse into how the bureaucratic mischief, malfeasance and malice by the IEBC secretariat works to produce winners of presidential elections, and to get a sense of what goes on within secured spaces, away from the public glare, where IEBC clerks verify and tally the results of various polling stations.

The IEBC numbers on the 2013 presidential election, like its voter register, kept changing, and took an extraordinarily long time to finally be posted for public scrutiny. Without a stable register of voters, the “tyranny of numbers” became a self-fulfilling prophecy that no one could test, but a valuable tool for creating and sustaining a perception of invincibility.

August 2017: Robbery with violence

This year’s script was an amalgam of the 2013 and the 2007 experiences. Several reform processes and anxieties around insecurity during elections provided a perfect cover. The locus of the execution of the coup was the IEBC, buoyed by the mantra that no court in Africa has ever nullified a presidential election.

The 8 August 2017 election was preceded by a number of preemptive strategies and strikes, variously aimed at pro-democracy non-governmental organisations and foundations associated with key opposition figures with the aim of incapacitating resistance against the regime. The NGO Coordination Board’s attempts to close down the accounts of the Kalonzo Musyoka Foundation, the Kidero Foundation, and a foundation associated with Rosemary Odinga, Raila’s daughter, fall into this category. Libel laws enacted by the Jubilee government and the creation of a central government advertisement agency also came in handy when manipulating Kenya’s oligopolistic main-street media.

Resistance to an electoral coup was largely expected to rise from the core of Raila Odinga’s constituency and a few human rights and democracy non-governmental organisations. Jubilee went for both with speed once the result had been declared: indiscriminate state violence and attempts to close AFRICOG and the Kenya Human Rights Commission fall into this pattern.

How Jubilee executed this year’s scheme is a classic study on how a coup strategy was interwoven into Kenya’s electoral process and performed through routine acts of government functions, using the very institutions democracy depends on, without rousing suspicion among the citizens. A look at its key aspects demonstrates how an electoral coup works.

The Jubilee campaign, like the one in 2013, was energetic and glitzy. It was largely amplified by the President’s Delivery Unit’s advertisements: “GoK Delivers”; “+254 Tuko na Plus Kibao”; advertisements that claimed that Kenya had registered exceptional achievements in many fields, such as provision of “free” maternity services amidst a protracted strike by health workers. Jubilee made several campaign forays into what were considered swing constituencies or loose pro-opposition strongholds in Kisii, Bugoma, Kajiado and other areas.

If issues do not count in Kenya’s politics, and only ethnicity does, then how could the government improve its electoral chances when the Jubilee government is widely perceived to be dominated mostly by the elite of just two ethnic groups and didn’t even attract any significant symbolic defection of notable ethnic leaders in the run-up to the August 8 election?

Regime-aligned intellectuals, like Misigo Amatsimbi, writing two days before the poll, predicted Jubilee’s victory, complete with the numbers and the expected ethnic shifts in voting patterns. These numbers, expressed in percentage form, bear an uncanny resemblance to the figures IEBC would later disown in court, and variously call “data, provisional text data or statistics”.

Narratives of Jubilee’s victory, mostly by analysts who had simply ignored the confounding figures IEBC was beaming through the public portal, used “data” from secondary sources, used only form 34B, or relied on the incomplete records of the polling station results, the form 34A.

Vowing that Kenya’s presidential election was nothing but an ethnic census, where issues count for little, Misigo used the last census figures to approximate the number of votes that either Raila Odinga or Uhuru Kenyatta would get at varied levels of voter turnout among various Kenyan ethnic groups. In this analysis, Jubilee recorded a remarkable improved performance among the following ethnic groups: Somali, Samburu, Borana, Luhya, Maasai, Kamba and Kisii. Amatsimbi predicted 10.6 million votes (54%) in Uhuru’s first round win against Raila Odinga’s 8.8 million votes (44%). Misigo’s narrative and numbers don’t just add up.

Charles Hornsby had a similar prediction, which was based on a more sophisticated model that was gleefully rehashed by Bitange Ndemo, another regime intellectual, but which curiously sought validation in the hard-to-vouch form 34B after the declaration of the results.

Nor does “the Jubilee inroads into the opposition stronghold” narrative hold water. If issues do not count in Kenya’s politics, and only ethnicity does, then how could the government improve its electoral chances when the Jubilee government is widely perceived to be dominated mostly by the elite of just two ethnic groups and didn’t even attract any significant symbolic defection of notable ethnic leaders in the run-up to the August 8 election?

Infiltration and control of the commission

These numbers served an important role. They conditioned Kenyans to accept a Jubilee victory as something that had been scientifically foretold. They also enabled the narratives of certain victory, which gained currency immediately after the IEBC announced the results.

However, it is now clear that no one, not even the IEBC, could vouch for them. What is more, it is now clear how bureaucratic mischief, malice and malfeasance account for what was previously excused as “human error, fatigue and technological failure,” and how these acts produce presidential victory.

Wafula Chubukati, the chairman of the electoral commission, declared Uhuru Kenyatta the winner of the presidential election without receiving results from a substantial number of polling stations. Why did Chebukati declare the results of the election prematurely when the law allowed a few more days for a thorough job? Why was he waffling, lost in procedure, before declaring the results of the August 8 presidential election?

The Supreme Court found that numerous election return papers, notably form 34 C for the declaration of presidential results, lacked the mandatory security features, which raised suspicions that they could be fake. Why did Ezra Chiloba, the CEO of the IEBC, repeatedly remind Kenyans that the results being beamed through the public portal were results from 288 out of 290 constituencies shortly before the results were declared, only for the IEBC to disown these results as “data, provisional text data, statistics”?

Chiloba also told the BBC that some data entry clerk created an email account in the chairman’s name without the chairman’s knowledge, and used it to conduct about 9,000 transactions in the electoral database. Chiloba’s only regret was that the account was not created under a different (institutional) name. He did not question the ethical issue it raised: Why were these transactions conducted without the knowledge of the chairman? What motive was behind this?

According to the IEBC, in the 8 August election, there were more than 11,000 polling stations that were out of reach of the network coverage of Kenya’s three mobile service providers. However, in the fresh election on 26 October, this number had reduced drastically to only 300. This reduced figure was not accompanied by any report that showed that the mobile phone companies had made massive investments to improve network coverage between the August election date and the election date in October.

IEBC’s conduct reeks of bureaucratic mischief, malice and malfeasance. Chebukati and Akombe’s memos indicating that not everything was above board point to this. There can be no doubt that the IEBC is a compromised institution, infiltrated and controlled by those who control four of the now six commissioners. The devil is in the malicious detail of everyday bureaucratic decisions, procedures, rules and regulations. In the Maina Kiai versus the IEBC case, the Court of Appeal warned the IEBC against this kind of mischief. However, the IEBC’s defiance of court orders points to a compromised institution that enjoys the protection of the powers that be.

Hotspots talk

In the run-up to the August 8 election, claiming to have learnt from history, the Kenya Police, the National Cohesion and Integration Commission and the IEBC mapped, profiled and marked regions that they referred as hotspots. The state mobilised an unprecedented 180,000 officers from various armed formations, over 30 specialised armoured anti-protest vehicles and helicopters for rapid deployment. (Coup plots work best with a mixed force, capable of executing orders as given, but incapable of executing a countercoup.)

At first glance, the list of places labeled hotspots appeared inclusive, it contained both the incumbent’s and the opposition’s strongholds, areas that had experienced political violence in the past general elections. However, some state action told a different story. The police held protest control simulation only in Kisumu and Nairobi. Only Kisumu and Oyugis, both in the opposition stronghold, received body bags, ostensibly as part of first aid kits donated by an NGO. That’s a Kenyan first in the history of first aid.

The lopsided deployment of the armoured vehicles, body bags and rehearsals for protest control told a different story. It suggested a strategy informed by a predetermined electoral outcome, a contest with a known winner and loser, and predictably, where the results of the presidential election would either bring joy or disappointment.

The Supreme Court stood up to something insidious that has been gnawing at the heart of Kenya’s democracy since 2007, something that neither the Johann Kreigler Commission in 2007 nor the Supreme Court in 2013 managed to correct. Unlike Kibaki’s 2007 coup, which unintentionally produced comprehensive reforms, the 2017 plot seeks to upend the 2010 Constitution of Kenya.

Hotspots talk was a camouflage. It provided a perfect cover for an armed repression of protests against the IEBC’s attempt to unconstitutionally and illegally make Uhuru Kenyatta the president of Kenya. Recent human rights reports now confirm that the police may have killed up to 67 people, mostly in opposition strongholds, and especially in urban slums.

Monopolising the narrative

If the violence of an electoral coup looks strikingly similar to that of a classic military coup, then how it monopolises communication in a pluralistic media landscape sets it apart from the latter. In a typical military coup in a state-owned media era, the seizure and control of the only broadcast house more or less guarantees the coup makers a monopoly over the most effective means of communication.

Kenya’s experience suggests that the electoral coup plotters used a markedly different approach to attain the same results. The idea was not so much to seize a broadcast house as it was to dominate the narrative on the critical aspects of the electoral process. This was achieved through various approaches, including intimidation of media houses, ordering broadcasting stations to not announce unofficial presidential results, imposing a reliance on the IEBC “public portal” (the pot of statistics and provisional text data, which the commission itself disowned), and investment in heavily PR-mediated news reporting and analysis.

PR spins

The PR spin on the results was remarkable. As Wandia Njoya pointed out, in reporting the results, the burden of proof was put on the opposition to “substantiate the claims”, not on the IEBC, the principal author of the confounding statistics, to explain the anomalies and irregularities, the processes, and the missing polling station data (forms 34A). Any coverage that deflected attention away from the IEBC was welcome. Favourable observer reports were amplified, while those critical of the process were suppressed.

The Cabinet Secretary in charge of communication and the government’s communication authority repeatedly warned Kenya’s “main-street” media against broadcasting unofficial results and threatened sanctions on any media house that would dare to broadcast them. These directives of questionable legal basis had one effect: they allowed the government to control the narratives on the election. Moreover, the government raided the opposition parallel vote-tallying center in Nairobi. This was an attempt to neutralise any competing source of information and make the citizenry dependent on the only one source of information, the one controlled by the compromised electoral commission.

Rollback of reforms

Whether or not the Supreme Court upheld or annulled the results of the August 8 presidential election, Kenya’s democracy was damned either way. The judicial coup would inevitably be followed by an electoral counter-coup.

The Supreme Court stood up to something insidious that has been gnawing at the heart of Kenya’s democracy since 2007, something that neither the Johann Kreigler Commission in 2007 nor the Supreme Court in 2013 managed to correct. Unlike Kibaki’s 2007 coup, which unintentionally produced comprehensive reforms, the 2017 plot seeks to upend the 2010 Constitution of Kenya.

The Court exposed the Jubilee government’s attempt to rewrite the Kibaki plot, whose ambition included the control of all centres of power that check the presidency. Momentarily, the court had wrong-footed a well laid-out coup plot whose full scope will, hopefully, become clearer once the unprecedented 300 election petitions filed against various candidates in the just concluded general election, especially those from the “inroad” constituencies, are determined.

A weird reversal of aspirations seems afoot. The government has created an incumbent-friendly electoral commission. It only awaits presidential ascent or tweaking to take care of any contingency, for example, the resignation of its chairman. If this becomes law, it will institutionalise all the IEBC’s bureaucratic mischief, malfeasance and malice that led to the annulment of the August 8 presidential election.

By Akoko Akech
Akoko Akech, presently a graduate student at the Makerere Institute of Social Research, was the program officer in charge of the Society for International Development (SID-East Africa) and Institute for Development Studies’ book project, Karuti Kanyinga and Duncan Okello (eds.,) Tensions and Reversals in Democratic Transition: Kenya’s 2007 General Election, and the Working Paper Series on the Constitution of Kenya, 2010.  

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Akoko Akech is a graduate student at the Makerere Institute of Social Research, presently living in Kisumu.

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From Shifta to Terrorist: A Shifting Narrative Of Northern Kenya

A section of Kenyan citizens has been labelled dangerous to the main body of the country and denied a national identity and equal status with their fellow citizens.

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As Kenya was celebrating her independence in 1963, the people of the Northern Frontier District were mourning the death of their dream of self-governance under British rule. In the spring of 1962, at the Lancaster House Conference, the region’s delegation had demanded self-determination for the NFD. The colonial government appointed an independent commission to look into the question and a referendum to determine the region’s future was subsequently held. The results of the plebiscite were however cancelled under suspicious circumstances even though they indicated that the overwhelming majority supported self-determination. The people felt cheated, and the north exploded in rebellion.

Northerners, especially those from the northeast, accuse the British colonial government of craftily handing over the region to Kenyatta. The colonialists had promised the separatists’ leaders that they would delay independence for the region to facilitate the orderly transition from colonial rule to self-rule.

The British played both sides after the Northern Frontier District delegation rejected the terms of independence and demanded a different path for the district. The colonial government decided to disregard the wishes of most of the inhabitants and handed over the region to the post-independence Kenyan government. Somalia protested the move, which further complicated the north’s struggle for independence.

What had been a people’s quest for self-rule became a political tussle between Kenya and Somalia.  This issue has yet to be settled six decades later, and the north has become a victim of unending sabre-rattling. Kenya became independent on the 12th of December 1963 with Jomo Kenyatta as its Prime Minister. A State of Emergency was declared for the north-eastern region on the 27th of December 1963.

The Shifta war

The rebellion that followed the declaration of independence was, to the separatists, a struggle for self-determination. To the Kenyan government, the separatists were Shifta, the name used to reduce the separatists and the NFD population to bandits, outlaws, thieves, criminals, and murderers.

The Shifta label has stuck, although the events surrounding the coining of the term have been carefully erased from the history books. The Shifta narrative was meant to unite the rest of Kenya against the menace of the separatists. The media effectively adopted the new term as a standard reference to the rebels. Newspaper headlines reported shifta attacks almost daily throughout the period of the conflict.

The “war” was mainly skirmishing between the ill-equipped ragtag army of northern rebels and the Kenya military backed by British planes and tanks. It is the population in the north that bore the brunt of the fighting. The nomads had to sustain the fighters in their midst with their meagre resources while dodging the military operations and bombings.

The conflict began on the 22nd of November 1963 when NFD rebels burnt down a camp in Garissa. The rebellion took its toll on the inhabitants, forcing them to flee in droves to the neighbouring countries of Somalia and Ethiopia. Kenyan security forces considered everyone a rebel and the Shifta label was liberally applied without discrimination to men and boys from the region. Villagisation and shooting of camel herds were used extensively by the government to force the nomadic pastoralists to settle.

Somalia’s support

The secessionists expected to receive arms and ammunitions from Somalia, but Somalia’s loud noises were more bark than a bite. Nothing of material import came from Somalia in the four years of the war.

While fanning the conflict through declarations and radio broadcasts, Somalia was unwilling to train, arm and fight alongside the secessionists. The significant material support provided to the Kenya government by the British and the superior training of the military forces eventually turned the tide of the war in Kenya’s favour.

The end of the war began in 1966 with the exodus of the nomadic population. By 1967, the secessionists were out of arms and had no resources to rely on as the nomads crossed the border into Somalia in droves in what is known as John kacarar (escaping John). The secessionists surrendered in groups throughout 1967.

Realising that the rebels were at the end of their tether, Somalia accepted peace terms with Kenya mediated by Zambian President Kenneth Kaunda. An agreement to end their differences and restore diplomatic relations was signed on the 14th of September 1967. The secessionist war effectively ended without any agreement with the secessionists themselves, without demobilisation, without any concession to the suffering population of the north and on terms that were never declared public to the residents of the NFD. Four years of bombings, shootings and plunder had left the northeastern region — where the fighting was concentrated — destitute.

Once the war was over, reconstruction failed to begin. The schism remained in place. The military went on with operations aimed at clearing the region of “shifta elements”. The cost of the war was never enumerated. The hopelessness that descended on a defeated community required leadership, which never came.

Collective punishment 

A new narrative of bandits roaming in the unsafe wild north began to take shape. Collective punishment was the modus operandi during this period. Whenever armed criminals committed a crime, the nearest settlements were decimated by the soldiers.

In the late 1970s, an incident occurred along the Kenya-Ethiopia border where a military vehicle was burnt. The locals claimed the action was perpetrated by armed Ethiopian militia. In what came to be known as the Malka Mari Massacre, the Kenyan military detained over two hundred men and stoned them to death. None of the men was armed, and the military did not fire a shot.

In the period that followed, poaching became rampant as the stockpiles of small arms fell into the hands of poachers. Overnight, the “Somali Poacher” was born. The parks were now under threat from a new breed of armed men motivated by nothing more than money, and allegedly backed by influential people close to the government. Throughout the 1970s, the Somali poacher terrorised Kenyan elephants, rhinos, and cheetahs.

The secessionist war effectively ended without any agreement with the secessionists themselves, without demobilisation, without any concession to the suffering population of the north.

In 1980, the security forces burned down Garissa after detaining and killing many of its inhabitants. This was an incident directly resulting from a disagreement between poachers and their contacts in government. A disgruntled poacher took matters into his own hands and killed several soldiers and other government officials.

The 1980s also saw the infamous Wagalla Massacre of 1984, where thousands were tortured and killed at an airstrip in Wajir, ostensibly during a military operation to curb banditry.

While Shifta and poachers were the competing narratives used by the government to explain its inability to bring the northern region under proper government control, the region suffered wanton neglect and underdevelopment.

The Somali-Ethiopia war ended in 1978, sparking the return of thousands who had fled the region during the war of secession as Somalia descended into clannism and corruption under military dictatorship. That same year, Vice-President Daniel Arap Moi gave a speech that sparked the alien debate when he threatened that the government would register all Somalis and deport anyone found to have allegiance to Somalia. It took 11 years for this policy to be implemented.

But the alienation of Somalis had begun earlier as it is recorded that police had raided Eastleigh and arrested Somali foreigners as early as 1970. Traders from the north-east were deemed vagrants and deported from areas in the Rift Valley and Central Kenya back to their home region.

Citizenship documents were tightly controlled, and a system of verification was put in place to make it impossible for the region’s inhabitants to register as citizens. The police were given orders to stop and ask for IDs from anyone looking like a Cushite, a Somali or other related tribes who were distinctively identifiable.

The pink card

In 1989, the famous Kenya-Somali verification and registration took place. The system was designed to catch anyone who could not be linked to a sub-location and known clan.

People had to state their family tree up to their sub-clans, and a pink card with these details was issued to the successful ones. The system was designed to force out of Kenya those unaffiliated to any of the groups “indigenous” to the country.

It is estimated that at one point hundreds were crossing the border into neighbouring countries daily. People were detained, women with young children appeared in court accused of being in the country illegally. Suspected aliens were loaded on military lorries and dropped off in Liboi across the Kenya-Somali border. Many families, especially those elites with businesses, crossed into Uganda and left for Europe or America. The pink cards eventually became available for a fee, and it is believed registration officials took hefty bribes in the process. The verification and registration were suspended after two harrowing years during which homes were raided, their inhabitants detained, and property was lost when entire families were deported with nothing more than the clothes on their backs.

As the “aliens” narrative waxed and waned, a new event triggered the updating of the terminology.

In 1991, the Somalia government of Siad Barre collapsed, spilling hundreds of thousands of refugees into the neighbouring countries. Kenya was grappling with its fear of Somalis and now had to face the eventuality of hosting desperate refugees, including the deposed president.

But the alienation of Somalis had begun earlier as it is recorded that police had raided Eastleigh and arrested Somali foreigners as early as 1970.

The refugees were allowed in and settled in camps where they were fed and housed by the UNHCR and other humanitarian agencies. Throughout the 1990s, Somalia was controlled by warlords who divided the country into green zones, fought viciously among themselves and continued to spill out new refugees.

Apart from participating in efforts at reconciliation and in hosting refugees and facilitating their resettlement in Europe and America, Kenya stayed out of Somalia’s affairs. As the refugees were too many to be housed in the sprawling camps in Dadaab, Dagahaley and Kakuma, some ended up living in towns with the alien cards issued by the UNHCR as identification.

The idea of controlling the movement of refugees soon became fashionable. For the security forces it is difficult to differentiate between locals and refugees and soldiers engaged in random stop-and-searches and nighttime raids in the main towns to flush out illegal aliens.

Human trafficking 

The controls placed on refugees living in towns illegally sparked lucrative human trafficking where the police and traffickers facilitated the movement of people from the Somali border to the interior. IDs and passports became available for those who could pay but were impossible to acquire for genuine inhabitants of northern Kenya.

While Somalis and their Cushite cousins were getting used to the “alien” idea, a new term landed on Kenya’s shores: terrorism. International terrorists bombed the American embassy in Kenya in 1998. The perpetrators had names similar to those of the northerners and the refugees. The “terrorist” label did not stick for another decade and during this period Somali businesspeople invested heavily in the Eastleigh suburb of Nairobi, creating a vibrant market where initially had been an unremarkable residential estate with a few wholesale and retail shops.

This economic boom coincided with the emergence of piracy on the Somali shores of the Indian Ocean. Suddenly the Kenyan media were reporting that piracy money was flooding the markets and making life costly for the residents. The Somali pirates were real, but this was part of international piracy having its operations on the lawless Somali coast. How the piracy money was siphoned into Kenya was never explained. The piracy issue occasionally crops up when overzealous reporters make disparaging references to piracy and the real estate boom in Kenya.

Al Shabaab

In 2011 Kenya sent troops into Somalia in an operation dubbed “Linda Nchi” after a tourist was kidnapped at the coast and probably taken across the border. There were other cross-border raids. However, significant Al-Shabaab attacks in Kenya began in 2012 when Kenyan forces were integrated into the forces of the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM). As Kenya became embroiled in state-building in Somalia, with the creation of Jubaland floated as the reason for the invasion, Al-Shabaab started bringing its terrorism into Kenya.

In 2013, the Westgate Mall shootings led to the death of 67 people. More than 67 others also died in attacks in Mpeketoni in Lamu in 2014. The attacks on Garissa University attack were the worst, leading to 150 dead, many of them students. These brazen attacks were attributed to Al-Shabaab. Although the terror group had already internationalised and was recruiting with no regard to ethnicity, Kenyan Somalis became the target for blame, name-calling, and arrests.

In 2013, Human Rights Watch released a report titled “You are all terrorists”. The terrorist narrative drives xenophobia, arbitrary arrests, detention, and torture. After the terror attacks in 2014 in Eastleigh and Mpeketoni, the security forces conducted an indiscriminate door-to-door operation targeting anyone who did not have an ID card to hand. This security operation was dubbed Usalama Watch. Those who did not have the document were taken to Kasarani Stadium and held there for two weeks. About 900 people were taken to the stadium, the majority being young people who could not acquire IDs due to discriminatory bureaucratic procedures , and a haphazard and corrupt system that barred genuine citizens from receiving the document.

The verification and registration were suspended after two harrowing years during which homes were raided, their inhabitants detained, and property was lost.

Over half a century of negative portrayals of people from the north means that the official government policy is skewed when it applies to them. The acquisition of a passport is generally a straightforward process. To ensure that aliens from the north do not acquire this critical document, the immigration department and security agencies have an illegal and discriminatory step in place for border communities — vetting. It is not enough that a northerner provides sufficient genuine documentation. The applicant must appear before a group of government officials, security officers and appointed individuals to prove their citizenship. To pass this step, one must know their location chief, the genealogy of ones’ clan and other trivialities that are ordinarily unnecessary in life.

The emergence of one label does not lead to the dropping of the existing labels. Shifta, Poacher, Refugee, Pirate and Terrorist shape the thinking behind public actions. These negative portrayals have an impact on how national matters are debated and resolved.

A section of Kenyan citizens is considered as dangerous to the main body of the country. The secession war that ostensibly ended in 1967 is still being fought; the terms of the agreement that ended the war have never been the subject of a national conversation. Did the agreement include such important matters as citizenship, identity, development, and non-discrimination? The security agencies have not discarded their belligerent attitude towards the population and the civil service retains the policies of the 1960s towards the people of the north.

One must know their location chief, the genealogy of one’s clan and other trivialities that are ordinarily unnecessary in life.

National identity is at stake as those who rejected becoming part of Kenya at independence cannot have equal status with everyone else. They are aliens, and “they all look like”. The most dangerous portrayal is the association with terrorism; poachers and pirates are small fish compared to terrorists. In the last few years, enforced disappearances and extra-judicial killings related to the war on terror have become commonplace. It is hard to fight for the rights of one who is labelled a terrorist and is disappeared or killed.

Public association with a terror suspect is a stigma that nobody is willing to be associated with. Crimes are committed under cover of fighting terrorism, and there is nothing the targeted community can do about it. That is the power of a label; it obscures the truth, gives authorities cover to commit genocidal crimes and permits the practice of xenophobia in public.

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The End of Abiy-Mania

When he ascended to power in April 2018 Abiy Ahmed elicited goodwill inside and outside Ethiopia but the continuing humanitarian crisis in the Tigray region is losing him friends.

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Ethiopia will go to the polls on June 22, buffeted by various crises domestically and abroad. But the upcoming election has many echoes of the May 15 2005 election, whose impact continues to shape Ethiopia’s domestic politics and politics in the Horn of Africa. Central to Ethiopia’s current domestic crisis and the border dispute with Sudan, is the Abiy-Amhara compact.

The 15 May 2005 elections were the third national elections to be held under the 1994 constitution following the ouster of the Marxist-Leninist Derg. In the 1995 and 2000 elections, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) government harassed the opposition parties, forcing the influential ones to boycott the polls, with the result that the EPRDF won both elections with over 90 per cent of the seats.

Ahead of the 2005 election, the EPDRF signalled the significant participation of the opposition parties so that Western observers—whose support was critical for Meles—would declare the elections to have been free and fair. The incumbent party acceded to the pre-election demands of some opposition parties, allowing in international election observers and giving the opposition parties a chance to sell their manifestos on the national broadcaster. These conditions were absent in the previous elections. While these were not among the chief demands of the opposition parties prior to the polls, they indicated reasonable good faith on the part of the government compared to previous elections.

As a result, for the first time in Ethiopia’s history, a nationwide multiparty competition seemed possible; neither the ruling party nor the opposition had ever faced a competitive election before.

Internal turmoil within the EPRDF preceded the election. The Central Committee of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF)—Prime Minister Meles Zenawi’s core support base—broke up into two rival factions in 2001. With his base in the Tigray heartland at risk, Meles took advantage of his central position within the broader EPRDF coalition and outmanoeuvred his rivals. He sacked several senior officials and successfully weathered the storm, but the fault line remained and emerged during the 2005 elections.

Post-election 

The pre-election period saw the unprecedented participation of the opposition parties and civil society organisations in the campaigns. Election Day went peacefully, and the early results in Addis Ababa and other major urban areas showed the opposition parties making significant electoral gains. According to unofficial preliminary results, the opposition had won 172 parliamentary seats—its most considerable showing yet in the 547-member assembly. On the night of the election, Prime Minister Meles Zenawi declared a one-month ban on public demonstrations in the capital and brought the Addis Ababa security forces (which would have come under the opposition’s command had they been sworn in) under the control of the Prime Minister’s office.

Opposition parties boycotted their seats in parliament, alleging rigging by the incumbent. Their refusal to take up their seats in parliament handed Meles Zenawi and his party a third term in office. Meles interpreted his “mandate” as a licence to take the authoritarian path. Hundreds, if not thousands, of political opposition and human rights activists were arbitrarily detained, with some facing the spurious charge of treason. Ethiopian security forces killed almost 200 demonstrators in post-election protests in June and November 2005 and arrested tens of thousands of people.

With the domestic front “sorted”, Meles turned to regional matters. In December 2006, Ethiopia’s military intervened in Somalia to root out the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC), which had brought stability for the few months they were in charge. The Ethiopian forces captured Mogadishu in less than a week, and the UIC dissolved and surrendered political leadership to clan leaders.

Ethiopia’s ouster of the UIC tapped into a deep historical hostility between Somalia and Ethiopia, something Al Shabaab, the youth wing of the UIC, exploited with a mix of latent Somalia nationalism and anti-imperialism.

Ethiopia’s actions provided Al Shabaab with an opportunity to translate its rhetoric into action. Al Shabaab began targeting the nascent Somalia government, Ethiopian forces, the Transitional Federal Government security, political figures, and any Somalis collaborating with Ethiopia. Ethiopia’s and TFG’s heavy-handed counterinsurgency responses played into the hands of Al Shabaab.

Ethiopia’s incursion into Somalia took place three weeks after General John Abizaid, the commander of US forces from the Middle East to Afghanistan, had met with then Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi.

Sixteen years later, Ethiopia goes into another election whose consequences could transcend Ethiopia.

The limits of Abiy-Mania

When he ascended to power in April 2018, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed elicited a groundswell of collective goodwill inside and outside Ethiopia. He embarked at breakneck speed on reforms that just a few years earlier would have sounded far-fetched.

At home, Abiy released political prisoners, appointed the country’s first female as the ceremonial president and a cabinet half-filled by women. He nominated a once-jailed opposition leader as the new chairwoman of the electoral board. In the Horn of Africa region, Abiy had a rapprochement with Eritrea, a country with which Ethiopia had fought a bloody war between 1998 and 2000. Abiy also attempted to mediate the Sudan political crisis.

The Nobel Committee awarded Abiy the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize “For his efforts to achieve peace and international cooperation, particularly for his decisive initiative to resolve the border conflict with neighbouring Eritrea.”

Federalism vs centralisation

While the trigger for the Abiy-led military operation against the Regional Government of Tigray in the north of the country is the alleged attack of the federal army base by the Tigray Peoples Liberation Front (TPLF), the attack was only a symptom and not the actual cause.

The battle between Abiy and the TPLF and other groups is a battle between those who champion the multi-ethnic federalism constitution and those who prefer a centralised state. Abiy favours centralisation to federalism.

The Tigray region is not the first to bear the brunt of the military and federal security forces to achieve Abiy’s centralisation agenda. The Oromia and Sidama regions have also been at the receiving end of the violence of the federal security authorities.

Abiy embarked at breakneck speed on reforms that just a few years earlier would have sounded far-fetched.

Throughout its long history of state formation, Ethiopia was for thousands of years ruled by emperors under a monarchy with a unitary system of government. The last emperor, Haile Selassie, was deposed in 1974 and from then on until 1991, the country came under a dictatorship with a unitary system of government.

The creation of the EPRDF in 1989—an ethnic coalition of the Tigrayan Peoples’ Liberation Front, the Amhara National Democratic Movement (ANDM; later Amhara Democratic Party), the Oromo Peoples’ Democratic Organization (OPDO; later Oromo Democratic Party), and the Southern Ethiopian Peoples’ Democratic Movement (SEPDM)—had changed that.

Abiy’s shot across the bow was the dissolution of the EPDRF and the launching of the Prosperity Party (PP) on December 1 2019. The OPDO, ANDM, and SEPDM voted overwhelmingly to join the party, while the TPLF rejected the idea as “illegal and reactionary”. The timing of the move was convenient, coming just a few months before the election that was postponed because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The EPDRF’s multi-ethnic federalism and the inclusion in the constitution of the right to secede for all “nations and nationalities and peoples” of the country were innovative breakthroughs in a country with 80 different ethnic groups. But the constitution was also a product of ideological foment and political necessity. The leaders who revolted against the Mengistu junta had emerged from the student movement that had adopted the “nationalities and the land question”, redefining Ethiopian statehood.

The Oromia and Sidama regions have also been at the receiving end of the violence of the federal security authorities.

While the multi-ethnic federalism has been imperfect, especially its implementation and the domination of the EPDRF by the TPLF, in a multi-ethnic country with historical and contemporary grievances against the state, federalism has acted as a safety valve against ethnic tension.

Abiy and Amhara expansionism 

The Amharas are Abiy’s vociferous supporters at home. They, especially their elites, have an axe to grind with the TPLF for diluting their decades of uninterrupted state power and control. Amhara language and culture are the state’s language and culture, and the language and culture of the Orthodox Church which wields unfettered power. But with its political nous, its deep bureaucracy and know-how, the TPLF was always a challenging prospect for Abiy, a political novice with limited federal-level experience and hardly a political base. The connecting tissue of Abiy-Amhara unity is the lowest common denominator that is the fear and loathing of the TPLF. After dissolving the EPDR, a coalition in which the TPLF was a strong partner, the next step was to defeat the TPLF militarily. Even before the November military incursion into Tigray, Amhara militias were massed at the border with Tigray. If Abiy’s anti-TPLF move was intended to destroy them as a political force, for the Amharas this was an opportunity to regain some of the territories they had lost to Tigray in 1991.

Sudan

Ethiopia also has a boundary dispute with Sudan. The dispute centres on the al-Fashaga region, Sudan’s fertile breadbasket located in Gedaref State, which borders Ethiopia’s Amhara region in the north-west. According to the Anglo-Ethiopian Treaty of 1902 the area belongs to Sudan and, unlike the regime of Omar al-Bashir, for the transitional government of Prime Minister Abdulla Hamdok, settling this dispute is a priority. However, the Abiy-Amhara alliance has made resolving the dispute complicated.

Sudan is also a critical factor in resolving the Tigray crisis; the country is the only remaining supply route for the TPLF as Eritrea is closed to them and bringing in supplies and fuel through other routes is risky. Sudan could also determine how the GERD dam conflict will be resolved. Unlike Egypt, Sudan could benefit from cheap electricity if the dam is filled, but the country will not countenance losing al-Fashaga. Abiy faces difficult choices: cede al-Fashaga to Sudan and gain a partner in the dam negotiations while also denying the TPLF a supply route or keep al-Fashaga and lose Sudan in the GERD dam discussions, leaving the TPLF to use the Sudan border for supplies.

The Tigray conflict, which Abiy initially promised would be a straightforward law enforcement operation, has instead metastasised into a slow-grinding counterinsurgency operation. The continuing humanitarian crisis in the Tigray region is losing Abiy friends.

On May 23, the US State Department announced visa restrictions for any current or former Ethiopian or Eritrean government officials, members of the security forces, or other individuals—including Amhara regional and irregular forces and members of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF)—responsible for, or complicit in, undermining the resolution of the crisis in Tigray.

In a multi-ethnic country with historical and contemporary grievances against the state, federalism has acted as a safety valve against ethnic tension.

America’s sanctions came on the heels of the European Union’s suspension of budgetary support worth €88 million (US$107 million) until humanitarian agencies are granted access to people in need of aid in the northern Tigray region.

On the 7th of June 2021, Representatives Gregory Meeks (D-NY) and Michael McCaul (R-TX), who is also Chairman and Ranking Member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, together with Karen Bass (D-CA) and Christopher H. Smith (R-NJ), respectively Chairwoman and Ranking Member of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health and Global Human Rights, issued a joint statement after tabling a resolution condemning violence and human rights abuses in Ethiopia.

The sanctions come as Ethiopia awards its first telecom licence for US$850 million to a consortium that includes the UK’s Vodafone in what could herald the opening up of Ethiopia’s closed economy.

Before the EPDRF came into power, Ethiopia was a posterchild of famine and incessant conflict, especially under the Derg regime. Abiy and Amhara nationalism is bringing back the echoes of the Derg era and the upcoming June election is unlikely to resolve current crises; if anything, it will exacerbate them.

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We Still Can’t Breathe: Chauvin’s Conviction Maintains the Status Quo

Chauvin is simply a cop who committed an action so ugly that he had to be made an example of so that America could get back to normal.

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We Still Can’t Breath: Chauvin’s Conviction Maintains the Status Quo
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Sometimes even the “biggest” victories can ring hollow. That especially seems to be the case several months into 2021, and 11 odd months after George Floyd had his life snuffed out in front of a red-brick grocery store in South Minneapolis, around the corner from the “Little East Africa” neighbourhood. That Derek Chauvin, the cop who laid his blatancy in the form of a knee across Floyd’s neck in a gutter finally faced some form of consequence in the form of a guilty verdict, may, in and of itself be of little consequence in the grandest of schemes.

Yes, right now it seems as though the verdict that has come down harshly on Chauvin is a rebuke of all things heinous, nothing less than a massive moral victory for racial progress, black America and global equality.

Indeed, rainbows shall now shine through and if you listen to many pundits within the American (and for that matter, Western) broadcast media, racism against Black America has been solved once and for all —  à la the presidential election of Barack Obama way back in those heady days of 2008.

Chauvin will be sentenced on June 25th of this year. Much of Black America is already lowering their expectations away from the 40-year maximum prison sentence.

Life is full of disappointments.

In itself, the Chauvin verdict is not one of them; it is just another opportunity for a larger collective sadness, another opportunity for an eventual letdown, a reminder of the global system of injustice that is, frankly, far as hell from ever being permanently resolved.

I haven’t been in Minneapolis since the end of May 2020, the Saturday following the Floyd killing, when the very landscape and fabric of the “Twin Cities” of Minnesota and Saint Paul were irrevocably changed. Walking around that day, the sense of despair was palpable. All of Lake Street — all seven kilometers of it — seemed to have been hit by varying degrees of madness. Some buildings were completely burnt out, husks of their former selves; others had smashed windows or had “BLACK OWNED BUSINESS: DON’T BURN!” scrawled in graffiti across the boarded-up doors. Thousands of people trudged around with shovels, cleaning up debris ahead of the inevitable next night of chaos.

In the weeks that followed, the protests spread across the United States, and even took root on a global scale, spreading as far as Nairobi, London, Kampala, Rome and dozens of other cities. In Minneapolis, all the tension of a tense superpower seemingly dying of its own hubris during the chaotic early months of the COVID-19 pandemic descended on an idyllic neighbourhood. By the day I arrived, May 30th, the United States National Guard was being deployed to put down any form of violence with their own forms of violence. But the damage had been done and the rest of the country was experiencing its own varying levels of chaos. At least two people were killed in Minneapolis alone (and at least 19 across the rest of the US, though this number seems to be low). Dozens of people were injured in Minneapolis alone (although the exact numbers are hard to confirm; personally I talked to at least three people who had sustained non-lethal injuries during the protests, so the real number could be much higher).

Thousands were injured across the US, with hundreds more incidents of police brutality filmed and shared widely. In Minneapolis there was approximately KSh 53 billion worth of damage related to the unrest. Bob Kroll, the president of the Police Officers Federation of Minneapolis who allegedly had white supremacist ties retired at the beginning of 2021. The Minneapolis Police Department was defunded following the reckoning that fell upon the Twin Cities in those warm early summer weeks.

Among pundit across America, talk of alliance and “listening” rapidly became the norm. Many leading neo-liberals put out statements, Republicans and Democrats alike. Trump ordered the beating up of peaceful protesters in front the White House and goodhearted liberals were shocked and appalled. Everyone said it was a “sea change” in American race-relations.

Less than three months after the George Floyd protests kicked off there was a “monumental change” — Jacob Blake was shot in the back by police in the city of Kenosha, in my home state of Wisconsin. The NBA boycotted games, more conversations were had and the world kept right on turning, same as it ever has.

When it comes down to issues of inequality, racism and oppression the status quo is always maintained, especially in America. Two steps forward and three steps back seems to be the pattern, one that is only reinforced by the pattern of police getting away with the murder of Black Americans — whether on tape or merely under “suspicious” circumstances in which “the officer felt their life was threatened and required a response of lethal force”.

Perhaps it is this constant pattern of impunity that has caused the most damage, a pattern that in the US can be traced to well before the 1992 Rodney King riots in Los Angeles, California. The riots were sparked off by the acquittal of cops who had been caught on film beating and kicking King senseless on the shoulder of a freeway.

It’s the same as it ever was.

Over the years since, especially in this age of social media ubiquity, incidents police violence against Black men, women and children have been caught on camera with horrifying regularity.

Horrifying, but not at all surprising. Everyone within the Black community in the US has long known the score. “Officers under threat” deaths, cases failing to be investigated, rumours of pistols being planted, delays in emergency responder times, ties to white supremacy, “warrior cops” getting more military equipment, stop-and-frisk policies, higher incarceration rates among Blacks, continual harassment, talking to children about keeping hands visible when dealing with police, media bias, fetishisation of police, the “Blue Lives Matter” movement — the list of systemic issues within US police forces could fill the remainder of this article.

In this age of social media ubiquity, incidents of police violence against Black men, women and children have been caught on camera with horrifying regularity.

The American judicial system itself is inherently flawed. The narrative among much of the “upstanding” upper middle-class elements of society is that somehow race relations were, if not solved outright, repaired with a sustained “upward” trajectory somewhere around the funeral of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. after his assassination in 1968.

They paint a rosy picture of race-relations in the US in which all segregationist judges were replaced with forward thinking progressives, where all cops with KKK ties were unceremoniously fired, where the ghosts of “Jim Crow” laws (designed to suppress, segregate and subjugate post-slavery Black America) simply faded into the distant memories of a bygone era. The result was a sort of racial Cold War, where proxy wars were fought through the war on drugs, mass incarceration, neoliberalism and police impunity.

“At least segregation is illegal now”, says White America when pressed, as if cities, schools, hospitals and police actions were not still segregated sans overt painted signs.

Such sentiments bled into the politics of the US’s two major parties, Republicans spearheading the “War on Drugs” under the Reagan presidency of the 1980s and the Clinton administration cutting social programmes and accelerating mass incarceration during the 90s under the all-American ideal of “pulling oneself up by your bootstraps”. Such proponents of America’s neo-liberal ethos cared little whether there were any boots to begin with.

Slowly the technology caught up with the reality, and the anger felt across the marginalised communities in America had a focal point on which to pour out their frustrations. The images were there on film, little snippets sent into cyberspace by countless onlookers. The anger was in the bloody and lifeless body of Michael Brown lying for hours in a Missouri street. It was in Eric Garner pleading that he couldn’t breathe while being choked to death by cops in New York City. It was in Philando Castille being shot and killed in his car seconds after telling the officer who had pulled him over that he had a licensed gun in the car and reached for his wallet. (This shooting also happened in the Twin Cities area of Minnesota.) It was in Breonna Taylor being shot dead on a no-knock warrant in Louisville, Kentucky only for the officers to be charged with “wanton endangerment” for firing bullets into a neighbouring apartment.

None of the officers in the above incidents were convicted. Some were never even brought into a courtroom.

On April 11th 2021, Daunte Wright was shot and killed by a cop during a traffic stop in a suburb of Minneapolis, Minnesota. Details and footage of the incident are scant. The officer involved has been charged with second-degree manslaughter (a lesser charge than homicide in the US court system). Protests have sprung up around the US, youth wearing surgical masks — the hallmark of the smoldering COVID-19 pandemic — clashing with police and facing arrest, and “non-lethal weapons being deployed by officers to quell pockets of unrest”. This killing occurred at the epicentre of the “defund the police” movement — Minneapolis.

The cycle continues same as ever, two steps forward and three steps back in Black America’s quest for equitable treatment.

The police are just the visible agents of the systemic suppression of Black people that stretches far beyond the shores of the US.

If COVID-19 has shown up anything, it is the brutality of police worldwide. Most times their actions go on with impunity. Cops in Kenya beat up people without mercy and enforce curfew by leaving motorists stranded on highways. In Uganda cops extort commuters under threat of jail. In Rwanda the stranglehold on the nation continues to tighten under threat of harsh penalties.

There is no equality when it comes to the Global South, particularly for much of Africa whose suffering at the hands of the police echoes the oppression faced by the Black community in the US.

The cycle continues same as ever, two steps forward and three steps back in Black America’s quest for equitable treatment.

Through this lens of warranted cynicism, the “guilty” verdict handed down to Derek Chauvin by a jury in Minnesota is not a massive turning point. The very pundits stating that the verdict is such a monumental moment of change inherently prove that it is nothing remotely close to such a trend. There will be other failed indictments, other cops walking away, more cases of mysteriously “lost” body-cam footage. More will die, protests will spring up and be quelled with extreme prejudice.

Chauvin, the smirking killer that he is, did prove one thing and one thing only: where the “line” truly is, where the grey areas that the police hide behind blur over into black and white, from a “justified act of lethal self-defense from a frightened officer” into outright murder. His actions were so unquestionably heinous that they had to be dealt with. What Chauvin did derives directly from an ugly history; he lynched that man and at the time thought he would get away with it, hands in pockets, cocky half-smile on his face while his bodyweight cut off George Floyd’s air supply in that street gutter. Bystanders begged him to stop as the other officers watched in idle complicity. Paramedics were not allowed to give medical aid and Chauvin continued to apply pressure for minutes after Floyd had become non-responsive.

The systems, after all, stay much as they are in America. Profit margins must be maintained and “order” by way of the status quo must be upheld. The Twin Cities, of which Minneapolis is the more visible twin, would have simply exploded if the verdict had come back anything less than guilty. After a year of protests, COVID-19 lockdowns, electoral strangeness, Trumpian policies, political divisions, economic challenges and continued incidents of police violence, the tinderbox that was Minneapolis could not have handled Chauvin walking free out of the courthouse to appear on Fox News to “thank God”.

If that had happened the resulting violence would have dwarfed any incidents of unrest in America’s past. It is likely that weeks later clashes with police would be continuing on a nightly basis in dozens of cities across America. Minneapolis, where major corporates are headquartered, would have been engulfed in flames so huge the smoke would have been seen in the neighbouring state of Wisconsin.

The tinderbox that was Minneapolis could not have handled Chauvin walking free out of the courthouse to appear on Fox News to “thank God”.

Chauvin’s true legacy is that of an outlier, the ultimate talking-head example that “things are different now”, that something has truly been accomplished on a systemic level when it comes to police treatment of Black America.

In reality, Chauvin is simply a cop who committed an action so ugly that he had to be made an example of so that America could “get back to normal”.

For Black America in 2021 however, normal life is chockful of disappointments.

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